Britain's New PM Faces Deep Divisions In Coalition

PM Cameron at Cabinet meeting i i

Britain's new prime minister, David Cameron, makes a point at the first Cabinet meeting of his new coalition government. The new ministers began by giving themselves a pay cut. Andrew Winning/WPA Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Winning/WPA Pool/Getty Images
PM Cameron at Cabinet meeting

Britain's new prime minister, David Cameron, makes a point at the first Cabinet meeting of his new coalition government. The new ministers began by giving themselves a pay cut.

Andrew Winning/WPA Pool/Getty Images

For a man who once described himself as "Conservative to the core of my being," Britain's new prime minister, David Cameron, faces a daunting task: melding his party's principles with those of his centrist coalition partners.

At their first Cabinet meeting Thursday, Cameron and his deputy, Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg, sought to demonstrate their unity by imposing a 5 percent salary cut on themselves and their ministers.

The cut also signaled their determination to deal with Britain's record budget deficit, a process that could mean much economic pain for the British public and a huge challenge for the ruling coalition formed earlier this week after intense post-election negotiations.

As they did at Thursday's Cabinet meeting, the two leaders stood together Wednesday in a show of unity and sought to dispel suggestions that their political marriage of convenience will not last. They promised to improve Britain's economy and that their new government would cut the deficit by trimming the equivalent of about $8.8 billion from the national budget this year.

Internal Divisions

Although Cameron and Clegg are presenting themselves as the face of British politics, analysts say there are longstanding tensions between and within the two parties that won't go away.

Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the current British political experience differs from that in the United States. While the main parties in the U.S. are drifting farther and farther away from each other in terms of ideology, the parties in Britain seem to be moving closer to the center.

Even so, Kupchan says, both Cameron and Clegg are somewhat isolated within their own parties. "Cameron is to the left of his party base, and Clegg is to the right of his."

That distance between the leaders and the politics of many of their followers could pose trouble.

Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham, says Cameron is seen as a kind of "liberal Conservative" by the most right-wing elements in his own party.

In the eyes of some Conservatives, Cameron didn't fully succeed in returning his party to power, because he didn't achieve an absolute majority of seats in Parliament in the May 6 election. "So his legitimacy is really in question with that group of Conservatives," Fielding says.

In many ways, Cameron is like his Liberal Democratic partner in the coalition, Nick Clegg. Both come from well-to-do backgrounds, went to top private schools and rose quickly in their parties.

Conservatives Versus Liberal Democrats

But the two men are very different in terms of one key issue for Britain: relations with the European Union. Clegg, whose grandparents were Russian emigres and whose mother is Dutch, is much more closely aligned with Europe. He served in the European Parliament before winning a seat in the British Parliament, and he worked for an international aid organization.

Clegg's Liberal Democrats are strongly in favor of closer ties to the European Union.

Cameron, like most of his fellow Tories, is much more of a "Euro-skeptic," resistant to efforts to bring the U.K.'s economy in line with that of Europe, or to adopt the euro in place of the British pound.

"There are elements in the [Conservative] Party that would like to have a referendum and vote for Britain to leave the E.U." says Fielding, adding that Britain's new foreign secretary, William Hague, is unlikely to take the Liberal Democrats' advice on that issue.

And that, says Kupchan, is one way that the new British government will be less in sync with the Obama administration: He says Washington needs Europe to be a stronger partner in sharing global burdens, but that Europe is unlikely to be able to do that without leadership and economic power from Britain.

Can The Coalition Survive?

Despite differences over key foreign policy issues such as Europe, Kupchan says, the new coalition has at least two things going for it.

"One is that British politics is moving toward the center, and there are serious opportunities for building common ground," Kupchan says. "The other is that there is a sense of crisis, a sense in London that it's time to pull together."

But Fielding says he doesn't see the coalition holding together for much longer than it will take to hold a referendum on one of the Liberal Democrats' key issues: a change in Britain's voting system toward proportional representation.

The change, called the "alternative vote," would give voters for smaller parties a better chance to have their votes count, even in constituencies that lean heavily toward one or the other of the major parties.

The two coalition partners have agreed that such a referendum will be held, and Fielding says it could reasonably be done within 18 months.

"If the Lib Dems lose, which I expect they will," Fielding says, "they're going to look really stupid for having made this deal with the Tories. If they win it, then they got what they wanted, and there's no incentive to stay" in the coalition.

Fielding also predicts that Cameron will be more vulnerable to attacks from within his own party by then. That's because it will take some time for the British public to feel the pain caused by the government austerity plan that Cameron is proposing.

"You don't mess with a leader when he's 20 points ahead [in the polls]," Fielding says, but he adds that when voters start to feel the pain of spending cuts, "his popularity may slip, and they'll go after him."

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